Special Interview With US Ambassador On Afghan Peace, Elections
Interviewer: Lotfullah Najafizada
Interviewee: John Bass
Location: Tolo News
Najafizada: Ambassador Bass, thank you for coming to the program.
Bass: very good to be with you Lotfullah.
Najafizada: Ambassador, just today a delegation of Taliban representatives including their number two and former afghan officials including president Karzai are meeting in Moscow. Is that a step forward in peace process?
Bass: well, depends on what the result is, that comes out of this. The US has not been looking to monopolize the process. We think many countries have an important role to play and we welcome any efforts that generate momentum and push the process forward towards -what we think is an essential component- which is, an inclusive intra-Afghan dialogue between members of the Taliban, members of the government, members of wider society that can set up formal intra-Afghan negotiations.
I would say the group in Moscow is not as inclusive as I ‘would like it to see; I think I have heard that from a number of other people in society. And I think one of the challenges at this poin, in time is that afghans have had such a hard time putting together an inclusive representative group that includes the government and in which all afghans can see themselves. So, we are holding hope in the prospect that Moscow can contribute some important contributions. We will just have to wait and see.
Najafizada: well, the big group that you suggested, “the inclusive group” quote and quote were supposed to go to Qatar and it didn’t happen and that was an effort helped by the US. So, Moscow is at least delivering something, is that helpful?
Bass: well, again we will have to wait and see what these discussions produce. But you pointed out that for the better part of two months my government and other governments worked very intensively with many people across society to try to help build that group that could go to Doha, sit and talk with Taliban and start to identify how to work through the process of addressing the core issues that have been driving this conflict and disrupt that inaccurate Taliban narrative, that the principle reason for the conflict is the presence of international forces who are supporting the afghan people.
Najafizada: that’s what Mullah Brother said today in his very brief statement in Moscow, probably his first televised statement that we have seen, that the presence of US and foreign forces is an obstacle to peace. That’s a quite strong statement!
Bass: well, Mullah Brother of course entitled the “his opinion”. We listened to the afghan government, the afghan people and the afghan security forces with whom we work closely and whom I would say are doing reasonably well in this initial period of the traditional fighting season. Very pleased to see the results in the last few days in Ghazni but this is why again we feel it is so Important for representative inclusive group that includes the representatives of the government to sit with the Taliban and start working through these key issues in part to disrupt this Taliban narrative which they are able to provoke in part because there isn’t an inclusive unified voice from the rest of the society.
Najafizada: who the people in Moscow, the afghan leaders represent if not the entire society?
Bass: well, clearly there is some important voices that are present in Moscow. But there are many important voices that are not present in Moscow. when other fifty percent of the population of this country, I have yet to meet anyone who suggest their fifty percent of the problem that’s driving violence and they are certainly not at this point fifty percent of the discussion about the solution to this problem. And I can’t tell you how many conversations I have been in with various self-described leaders of Afghanistan who assert that they speak for the nation and they are all men over the age of 45. So, that would not seem to me to be producing an inclusive representative group that can speak for wider society.
Najafizada: right. And the Taliban leaders who attended Moscow are also apparently above forty-five.
Bass: I think that’s an accurate statement based on the length and color of their beard.
Najafizada: ambassador, the Taliban’s number two and in fact probably their defector leader traveling to Moscow as his first trip outside Doha and Pakistan, what does it tell us about the Russia’s role in afghan peace process?
Bass: well, as I said we think that, range of countries have important roles to play, important contributions to offer.
Najafizada: let’s talk about Russians particular.
Bass: well, as we see the Russians are bringing some representatives of the Taliban, some parts of afghan society together. We will have to see if that produces a good result and moves the process forward. But as I said we are not looking to monopolize the process. We are pleased to see some of our European friends stepping forward to take a more active role in trying to move these inter-afghan discussions forward. Because as ambassador khalilzad has made clear ‘nothing will be agreed, until all elements are agreed. And the right kind of discussions and interactions between afghan government, afghan society and Taliban are key part of ensuring that any settlement is durable and achieves the results we all want to see.
Najafizada: But this is some sort of intra-afghan dialogue between Taliban and other afghans. Is that telling us that Moscow is in the lead of doing it, giving that Qatar and the US couldn’t do that last month.
Bass: well, Lotfullah I think that reflex that kind of elitist inside baseball prospective on different phases of negotiations that obscures the real effort and objective we are trying to achieve here. Which is to move a process forward. Peace is not a simple prospect. So, there are roles for many countries to play.
Najafizada: to go back to Doha, there are reports that there is going to be another round of US-Taliban talks in Doha after Eid. How close are we to finalize the US components of the peace talks?
Bass: well I prefer you back to Ambassador Khalilzad statements at the conclusion the last round where he noted “we made study, somewhat slow progress” and his expectation to be back at Doha soon.
Najafizada: after six rounds of talks with the Taliban, what has the US learned from the Taliban? Has the group really changed? Are they the Taliban that you toppled from the government eighteen years ago?
Bass: well, as you noted I have not been in Doha, so I am not going to talk about what we have seen or not seen there. What I would note however is that I think this initial part of the process in which we are responding to the deep yearning of the afghan people for peace and for progress to reduce violence Its revealed significant intentions and divisions and polarization within wider afghan society.
Najafizada: is the Taliban today a threat to the US?
Bass: that remains to be seen based on whether or not they make commitments that we can have confidence, they will implement. And it remains to be seen whether any assurances they might offer that they are prepared to contribute to be part of a future Afghanistan That does not posse a threat to US or allice or any other country. That’s where we will find out.
Najafizada: We are just a hundred and twenty days to the presidential elections, do you think are we ready for that election?
Bass: well lets If I may first talk about this extraordinary period we are in. because we are passed against of the governments constitutionally mandated term. That’s the interpretation of the constitutional cord, and we respect and support their decision. At the same time, we fully expect that the president, the chief executive officer and the ministers and staffs understand that this is an extraordinary period and that they should be acting with a degree of self-restrain in how they conduct the business of government to limit that to the fundamental business of government. It is reasonable to ask why ministers are changing out, why other senior officials in government are changing out days after the constitutional end of the government termer office. In most democracies three, four months before an election you do not see major changes in cabinet, you do not see wholesale replacement of other government officials. I think it is reasonable to ask why this is happening and I think the other candidates have legitimate questions about what the motive is behind this. Is it in the national interest to take these steps or is it primarily driven by some type of self-interest, that’s a political interest of a candidate or self interest of somebody in government.
Najafizada: have you expressed this concern to the two sitting leaders of national unity government in this extraordinary time.
Bass: we have made our position on this quite clear to them and will continue to do so. And will not be shy about calling publicly for the kinds of restrain that we would expect to see in this extraordinary period. And which unfortunately thus far we have not seen to the degree we would expect.
Najafizada: would you call president Ghani a legitimate president of the country today?
Bass: He is the president sitting in office, he is termer office under a rolling by constitutional cord continues through September.
Najafizada: Is any further delay from September 28 affordable for Afghanistan, for the international community donator like US and acceptable?
Bass: we are focused on trying to help electoral commission deliver elections for the next president at the end of September.
Najafizada: some candidates have written to protest after Eid. Are you alarmed? Is that something that afghans should be worried, and you should be worried?
Bass: as I noted we respect the constitutional cords decision extending the termer office of the national unity government. It is important for them to have the opportunity to exercise rights of speech and assembly to protest peacefully if they choose to do so. I want to be clear no one should be contemplating or undertaking violence to try to change the current situation, to try to change the fact that this government is extended office, anyone who does so who tries to provoke violence or engages in violence is going to damage their relationships with the US.
Najafizada: you apparently had reservations about metric registration ahead of the elections. We think technology helps with the prevention of fraud, you think otherwise?
Bass: No! technology properly used, properly applied can play an important role. I don’t think anybody in this country thinks the biometric devices acquired and deployed less than two weeks before the parliamentary elections produced a better result. Was it the technology that was it fall? I think it was more the organization, the lack of training, the lack of understanding about how technology would fit in to a human process that is responsible for that inaccurate result back then. Without the proper Cibber security measures in place, without the proper understanding about who controls the data that the biometric devices generate. This could easily be a case in which one problem is substituted for current problem.
Najafizada: last week you appeared in an event where president Ghani’s national security advisor was there too at the American university of Afghanistan. And the US government a month ago or so decided not to interact with him and walked out of several meetings in which Mohib was present. What has changed in that policy?
Bass: nothing is changed in our approach in how we interact with the afghan government as a whole or individual members of the afghan government. Ambassador Mohib happened to be in an event which I was also present. And I would note that it was an event to celebrate the courageous decision by a number of members of graduating class at the American university of Afghanistan to resume their studies after the university was attacked and they finished and wore degrees. We thought it was important to be seen supporting the graduates and the institution.
Najafizada: Mr. ambassador my last question. Should Afghanistan be worried about increasing tensions between Washington and Tehran?
Bass: well I think that very much depends on the decisions that the Iranian government makes about its approach to the challenges that Afghanistan faces. My government has been very clear privately and publicly that the kinds of increased threats and threatening actions we are seeing from the Iranian government or their proxies across the middle east, posed threats to us. And that we are not going to be idle if our people or interests are attacked by Iran and we will respond appropriately. It is up to Iran whether they choose to make Afghanistan an arena for competition.
Najafizada: but that’s not US intention? You are not using your presence to confront Iran?
Bass: we have been focused on dealing with conflicts in Afghanistan. We have enough conflicts in Afghanistan for very many years.
Najafizada: And that’s why afghans are worried that another regional issue shouldn’t affect them. and I’m wondering if you can give them the assurance that, that’s not the case.
Bass: well, as I said that very much depends on the behavior, actions and choices of the Iranian government.